Defense of Idiocy In California

California law exempts from criminal responsibility not only idiots but also the insane. Until 1982, statutes defined neither idiocy nor insanity. The definitions of those terms were left to the judiciary. In People v. Drew (1978) 22 Cal. 3d 333 149 Cal. Rptr. 275, 583 P.2d 1318, our Supreme Court rejected the traditional M'Naghten test for insanity. Instead, it adopted the test appearing in the American Law Institute's Model Penal Code. Under that test, "A person is not responsible for criminal conduct if at the time of such conduct as a result of mental disease or defect he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality wrongfulness of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law." (Id. at p. 345) In In re Ramon M. (1978) 22 Cal. 3d 419 149 Cal. Rptr. 387, 584 P.2d 524, our Supreme Court adopted the same test for the defense of idiocy. The court pointed out that the judiciary had not found it necessary to fashion separate tests for the defenses of idiocy, lunacy and insanity because "all those terms describe mental conditions which render a defendant not 'of sound mind' . . . ." (Id. at p. 425.) In 1982, section 25, subdivision (b) was added as part of Proposition 8. That subdivision provides in part that insanity shall only be found when the accused person "was incapable of knowing or understanding the nature and quality of his or her act and of distinguishing right from wrong at the time of the commission of the offense." Thus the M'Naghten rule was reinstated as the test for insanity. The test for the defense of idiocy, however, is not defined by statute. the question is whether the Model Penal Code test adopted in Ramon M. still applies. We conclude it does not. As the court pointed out in Ramon M., there is no basis for distinguishing between insanity and idiocy for the purposes of imposing criminal responsibility. It would make no sense to conclude that lack of capacity to commit a crime is governed under one test in the case of mental illness and another test in the case of mental retardation.